We had chosen to take a very long route home for one simple reason… there was something we wanted to see that was never going to be on our way to anywhere. So the possible three hour journey took us over ten, and all to see a stone… a single standing stone… but a stone unlike any other in the country: the Rudston Monolith.
It stands in the churchyard of All Saints, Rudston, in the East Riding of Yorkshire and is the tallest megalith in the United Kingdom. It is nearly twenty-six feet tall, and was, until the ground of the churchyard was levelled in 1861, five feet taller, with at least another fifteen feet of stone below ground… and possibly more. William Stukely, who excavated the site, finding many skulls, found that there was at least as much of the stone buried as now stands above ground.
The stone is around three and a half feet thick and five feet nine inches wide. It is thought to weigh around forty tonnes and is of a stone called Moorstone Grit. Because of the particular type of stone, it was not found here, but must have been carried to the site from either Cayton Bay, ten miles away, or Grosmont, nearly forty miles away.
The point of the monolith is weathered in fluted channels, in the way that we have seen at so many sites. In 1773 it was capped with lead to prevent further erosion, uncapped, then recapped again. If the stone had once come to a point, before the weather had its way, it would have been at least another two feet taller than it is today.
The stone was erected in the Neolithic period or early Bronze Age… no-one knows for certain. In Britain, the Neolithic period began around six and a half thousand years ago, with the change to the Bronze Age beginning around two thousand years later. It is thought to have stood here on its hilltop for around five thousand years. But facts and figures are not the whole story… and they are the least impressive thing about this stone.
It has a colossal presence that far outweighs its dimensions and stands at the centre of a landscape once sacred. It is the curious juxtaposition of church and stone that shows how far we have moved from seeing the sacred in the living land, to enclosing our approach to divinity within an ornate ‘box’.
Both approaches have their merits… to see the earth as a living expression of deity is to walk as do the druids, with the consciousness that every footfall touches sacred earth. But, unless we maintain that attitude, it would be easy to let necessity and desire cloud our consciousness of the spirit of a sacred earth. To enter the walls of a hallowed place of worship is to deliberately approach divinity with a focussed intent. Yet it is too easy to keep divinity in its box and forget its presence in our lives when we leave the sacred precinct. Perhaps we need both and perhaps these mysterious artefacts recognise that need.
There are some curious markings on the stone, too weathered to say with any certainty what they are, or even if they are any more than natural. One such marking has long been thought to be a fossilied dinosaur footprint. Whether it is or not, you can imagine it being sufficient cause for our ancestors choosing this particular stone to set at the centre of a sacred landscape. The surrounding countryside was once strewn with barrows and burial mounds. Four five-thousand year old cursuses… sunken processional ways… converge upon the stone and an ancient henge is not far away.
One of the burials was brought here from a nearby barrow and the cist rebuilt in a corner of the churchyard, close to a second, smaller standing stone. probably overlooked by most who visit Ruston. There are also the remains of a sarcophagus there.
It was obviously a site of some importance and even the name, Rudston, comes from the presence of the monolith. It may mean ‘rood’ stone, meaning ‘cross’… and while that might be a post-Christian interpretation, could it be that ancients tracks ‘crossed’ here? Or leys? the dragon energies and an apparent dinosaur footprint might work well together. Rudston may also come from a Viking term, Hrodr-steinn in Old Norse, which means ‘famous stone’. There are many Viking names in the area, including several barrows, like Ba’l Hill… with Baal being a mace-bearing storm god.
That the site continued to be seen as important throughout its history is easy to see from the local landscape and archaeology. The Romans built a road close by and a Roman villa was found across the stream below the church. This intermiitent stream is the Gypsey Race that flows to Bridlington… and could that town be named for the early goddess, Brid?
We still had the church to visit… it would be well worth it too… and we would try, unsuccessfully, to find the holy well and the remains of the villa. But once the other visitors had left, who had asked us about the stone as they said we ‘looked like people who would know’, all we wanted to do was sit with the monolith and absorb its enormity… knowing that we know nothing at all and being perfectly okay with that.